Tag Archives: freedom

Hungry for equality? Service is the great equalizer.

The usual motley crew getting ready to trespass into the secret testing site.

At most of the protests in which I have been involved, starting with nuclear testing and El Salvador (and this year moving into climate change, gun control, police violence and immigration), I have often been asked the same question, “Is this protest doing any good?”

This better do some good

I suppose all protesters have to ask that question, at some, level, at least because they had to leave work or miss lunch, most of them, to add their voice to the cries of outrage. And “work” generally cares about itself, not justice, so who knows what it might do to them? So “This better do some good!”

I think “Is this effective?” or “Will this work?” is a typical empire question when asked in the United States. Especially here, people think they have the right and the power to make things happen, to remake the world according to their desires, to effect progress. So, especially here, all public discourse has to do with power — and most private discourse does, too, unfortunately (at least I know a lot of people who are in a perpetual power struggle). Work harder, work smarter, but get something done. Get what you deserve. Control things. Manage situations. Protect your future; it depends on your choices now.

We all seem to think we are in charge of the world and our own destiny. By extension, a protest is generally about exerting enough power to get the government/corporations to change.

Sometimes it works. During my lifetime I have seen pressure influence the government to change. For instance, the government stopped nuclear weapons testing at Mercury, NV in the 90’s after arresting 15,740 protesters (me included). Social action works often enough to keep hopeful, infuriated people in Hong Kong in the streets for weeks. I feel compelled to raise my voice quite often, myself. But there always seems to be some further travesty to shout about, doesn’t there?

Being effective is a secondary benefit

But being effective is not my main interest. My hope does not rest in getting Moscow Mitch McConnell to do the right thing nor rest in Mitch getting canned by Amy McGrath. Obviously, our protests about nuclear weapons have not stopped Putin, Trump and unknown numbers of Iranians and Israelis from plotting a nuclear solution to various problems (like hurricanes!).

People power accomplishes some great things, but it is amazing how often the evil powers beat the people at the game of domination. People who protest and organize to get power are often discouraged. If they think Jesus is all about dominating  the worldly powers or is just as preoccupied with exercising power as they are, they quickly get sorely disappointed with God for refusing to play the power game at all.

Of course, Jesus has miraculous power…

But here is the main thing Jesus shows us about how to get justice and equal rights:

You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. – Galatians 5:13

In the “empire,” people are constantly jockeying for the best deal for themselves. They become experts in the law in order to protect themselves and fight against people who steal their freedom and their wealth (or the possibility of wealth). Here the freedom to be autonomous is a paramount value and the only ethic is “Do no harm,” which includes harm to identity. Equality under the law is the main thing people hope in and what they protest about.

But I don’t protest just because I want to get the government to do good. I protest as a prophecy because the grace of Jesus gives me the freedom to BE good. I’m not just trying to get something; I AM someone. I don’t hope to get freedom from some evil power; I have already been given freedom by God. I don’t use that freedom for myself, like I formerly used whatever small freedom I felt I had before I rose with Jesus, in order to get more power; I use it to serve. Like Jesus, I use my freedom to become like a slave to others, bound to love. I think that is what Paul’s teaching is all about, and I wish it were a more common teaching today among his people.

Service, given freely,  will make us equal

People thought Jesus was a fool. Paul is quite aware he is a fool, as far as the rulers of his age are concerned. People still think getting out on the streets as a witness to the goodness and freedom of Jesus is foolishness. What does it get done? How can it give the protestor a proper share of the domination? Many people find it fruitless. Why not forget about the whole mess and frantically become as powerful as possible, carve out a piece of the capitalist pie as a hedge against whatever terrible thing is coming instead of trying to change things?

Here are my two reasons to show God’s goodness in the face of the corruption of the world:

Being a slave to all is good in itself. Don’t get me wrong, I think demanding equal rights under the law is a good thing. It is very hard for a traumatized person to feel free enough to serve anything but their self-interest. And the powers that be around here have created the huge injustice of income stratification and privilege hoarding to overlay their traditional racism and rapacious capitalism in the U.S. We’ve got to say “NO,” and loudly. But the freedom of walking into daily life free of its clutches, only constrained by the love that fills us and dominates our reactions is more precious than anything the “administration” can accomplish.

But what’s more, serving one another is the actual great equalizer. Being the family of God in service like our brother Jesus makes us all one in love – at least that’s what He’s hoping. Even when people get so-called “equal rights,” for which Americans think they are famous, even the light of the world, they still face discrimination every day and then a Trump regularly shows up to make it all worse. Does fighting for and waiting for equal rights make anyone free? Does going into denial and pretending Jesus makes me free in some otherworldy way make me free? — more than the former, perhaps. But I think what really makes us free is what Paul says: “Use your freedom to serve” or “choose the slavery of love.” That makes us all equal in character and purpose and gives us the experience of being free we crave.

I have rediscovered this truth repeatedly over my sojourn many times. One of the places it first became clear to me was in Nevada when I trespassed in the nuclear test site on behalf of the world and got “arrested.” Actually, I was just detained by bored policemen,  handcuffed with plastic bands and put in a chainlink cage for a little while because they did not really want to bother with a bunch of people clogging up the courts with their righteousness. Strangely enough, we accomplished something. But more, I accomplished being free. I faced my fear of the power: too little power on my part, too much power on the government’s part. Neither power made that much difference, but faith acting in love just WAS different. Being a locked up “slave” of the state for a while has been educational ever since.

Our common service, mutually compelled by the love of Christ makes us equal. Hopefully the world will come to resemble that truth. But I’m not waiting for a miracle that already happened; I want to live it now. According to Paul, we are free to live it now in Christ, and no other power on earth can give that freedom or take it away.

My freedom is an act of soul, not a feature of my condition

After I presented to the BIC’s Theological Study Group in May on our approach to “church discipline,” the convener’s first words in response were, “That was unconventional.”

I was still reflecting on my surprise at that response when I was in Assisi. There I refreshed my understanding of Francis’ radical response to the call of Lady Poverty and his identification with the marginalized. Now that’s unconventional! Like I wrote before, he was presciently rebelling against the beginnings of the exploitative capitalism Americans confuse with “freedom” these days.

It was depressing for Francis to realize the economy of Italy and the church was devoted to war and profit, and violence was always waiting to keep the powerless in line. As he went to the war front in Egypt and resisted writing a stifling agreement about his community for the church bureaucracy, he experienced his own powerlessness and it transformed him. He experienced what Paul was describing when he said his freedom made him a slave to all. And he was doing what Jesus did when he not only took on humanity, but put himself in the place of a slave – a devalued person who can be killed with impunity.

A freedom far too easily pleased

Last week’s further revelation for me was an insightfully written piece of history in the NYT Magazine: In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.It describes the conventions of the U.S. economy and the church which normally colludes with it. When we see how the legacy of slavery still has us in slavery, it calls for a lot more than unconventionality!

I have persistently railed against the corporate and now “gig” economy as basically elements of a slave economy. But I mostly reacted instinctively. This article provides an interesting back up argument for what I see all around me. In the U.S. we are subject to the premier example of “low-road” capitalism and so many of us think it is better, even God’s will meant to provide us the freedom of individual choice. I won’t paste in the whole article, but this gives you the feeling for what Francis was rebelling about:

Perhaps you’re reading this at work, maybe at a multinational corporation that runs like a soft-purring engine. You report to someone, and someone reports to you. Everything is tracked, recorded and analyzed, via vertical reporting systems, double-entry record-keeping and precise quantification. Data seems to hold sway over every operation. …

A 2006 survey found that more than a third of companies with work forces of 1,000 or more had staff members who read through employees’ outbound emails. The technology that accompanies this workplace supervision can make it feel futuristic. But it’s only the technology that’s new. The core impulse behind that technology pervaded plantations, which sought innermost control over the bodies of their enslaved work force.

Women and children in a cotton field in the 1860s. J. H. Aylsworth, via the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

This not only created a starkly uneven playing field, dividing workers from themselves; it also made “all nonslavery appear as freedom,” as the economic historian Stanley Engerman has written [example]. Witnessing the horrors of slavery drilled into poor white workers that things could be worse. So they generally accepted their lot, and American freedom became broadly defined as the opposite of bondage. It was a freedom that understood what it was against but not what it was for; a malnourished and mean kind of freedom that kept you out of chains but did not provide bread or shelter. It was a freedom far too easily pleased….

If today America promotes a particular kind of low-road capitalism — a union-busting capitalism of poverty wages, gig jobs and normalized insecurity; a winner-take-all capitalism of stunning disparities not only permitting but awarding financial rule-bending; a racist capitalism that ignores the fact that slavery didn’t just deny black freedom but built white fortunes, originating the black-white wealth gap that annually grows wider— one reason is that American capitalism was founded on the lowest road there is.

Freely joining the stigmatized

As Francis was limping off into his solitude after being essentially defeated by the entrenched ways of European culture, his defeat was already becoming his glory. It was well-known that he hid the marks of Jesus that began to appear and bleed on his body. The last thing he wanted was to become the object of a curial investigation or a commodity to be consumed by vacationers to Assisi. He quickly became those after he died, but he wanted to die in freedom.

“The five wounds that Francis bore were a body sermon which proclaimed two things: Frist, his abiding desire to stay on the side of the people who went about their whole lives with various stigmas – beggars, criminals, or lepers; second, Francis’ body revealed how much he himself has been injured and humiliated against his will, branded a loser in his contest with the powerful, and clearly conscious of his impotence” (in The Last Christian by Adolf Holl).

It was in this terrible condition that Francis  found himself free. He was finally like Jesus at the last Supper giving himself as food to the community in utter, fearless openness, free of the defenses and demands that run our days and make our societies.

In Assisi I saw some splendorous and kitschy crucifixes that belied the wounds of Francis and the the Lord. We’re not so open to freedom. When we see the poor we say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”  I pondered the paper cut of a forgivable slight while Francis received the spiritual slash of the spear.

Freedom the world cannot supply

I pondered the “cut” I felt at the study group, not only because it was thoughtless (and easily excused), but mainly because it was a tiny cost I paid for being “unconventional.” Francis was slavishly following the example of Paul who imitated Jesus by being unconventional for the sake of the salvation of sinners and freedom from death. My marks of suffering with Jesus are probably enough, but they can seem tiny in comparison.

Houston’s pitching staff, which includes Wade Miley, Joe Smith, Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, benefits greatly from the work of the team’s analytics department.
Astros pitchers

We’re kind of surprised we suffer at all. Even though Jesus dies for us, and tells us we will be persecuted if we do not conform to the world, we still think, “There but for the grace of God go I.”  If we work too hard at anything, we think, “This better be worth it!” When we suffer for something or suffer against something we think we’re extraordinary don’t we?

But suffering for or suffering against are probably too weak as ideas if we want to understand what Jesus and the Bible writers teach. The fighting against or for something will be unconventional for most of us, but they aren’t at the heart of things. Francis was not just a great rebel; his extreme obedience was not the point of his life!  he was just trying to follow Jesus with all his heart and that was trouble enough.

Right now, the Houston Astros are riding high on the back of a clubhouse motto:  Be the best version of the best player you can be. I imagine a few of them are Christians and this fits right into their faith. We could put it up as a motto for our cell: This is a place where you can become the best version of the true self you are called to become. That will cause enough trouble.

And suffering enough trouble is important. Can the poet compose without rebellion? Is there any truth without radical obedience? Like Jesus, my freedom, my poetry and obedience, is an act of heart, soul, mind and strength, in league with the development of my true self and the restoration of creation. My freedom is not a condition monitored by the police. America is not the land of my opportunity.

I am not a slave by birth but by rebirth. Some of us think our present condition of servitude is just our lot, to be rebelled against or obeyed — welcome to the ways of the world.  Jesus, Paul, and Francis all know better. They are free to live in the Spirit. The world doesn’t generally like them, but the self-giving love of being among the marginalized tastes like joy.

How to deal with natural opposition: Five proverbs

Every Cell Leader, when they get to know the typical cell member, is going to run up against opposition. I’m not talking about Trump-like antagonism, but the natural opposition people feel when Jesus calls them to follow, even more when He leads them to form  a community centered around Him.

Don’t we naturally resist the supernatural? Don’t we naturally avoid the unaccustomed? When a person seems oppositional in a cell they should not automatically be tagged “bad;” they just have baggage like the rest of us. They are loaded with large societal pressures and they have the habits formed by their life experience.  They have assumptions about how life works and they instinctively desire the cell to conform to them. They are not likely to automatically change their mind and habits to conform to our vision of what following Jesus is all about!  They feel understandable opposition. Who would not be a little bit reticent? Stimulating dialogue should ensue.

Good cells do not require good chips. But it helps.

One of the blessings of my work is the luxury of having stimulating dialogue quite often (and often with chips involved!). Sometimes I am in the middle of a fascinating “issue,” but often I am just sorting out the intricate issues of being a Jesus-follower in an ever-changing, ever-falling world. I love the dialogue, since revelations are best received face-to-face.

Christians often assume that because their beliefs or teachings are true for everyone they must be intelligible to everyone. But as Christians, we’re part of a story that has its own language (the language of the people of God). As Stanley Hauerwas has argued, we can only really understand ourselves and our place in that story if we are trained in the language of the Church. Our mates don’t seem intelligible half the time,  a diverse church is that much harder. So we must patiently share the language of the Church, particularly Circle of Hope,  if we want to have a fruitful dialogue with other Jesus followers — much more if we hope to include people who don’t follow Jesus yet! Our common language reinforces our awareness that we are part of a common story and teaches others how to become part of it, too.

In the past few weeks, I have had some deep conversations that have me thinking about the main issues we face when we try to form cells and face opposition. As a result, I have some “proverbs” forming in my mind that speak to the regular issues I discuss with people as they try to make sense of life in Christ as a cell. Here are five assumptions I think cell leaders should have when they are doing their work of nurturing a circle of people coming to know Jesus and coming to know how to live as the body of Christ. You might see them as basic building blocks of our our language — the language people are learning as they learn faith in Jesus these days. Here goes:

Progress is more about being known than processing data.

Wisdom is revealed and received more than extracted from precedent or “the research.” When I say that, I mean that wisdom resides with God and is primarily revealed in Jesus. Nevertheless, a lot of people expect to discover God by endless data processing, since that’s what we do. Processing means progressing to them.

As a result, many people will assume that more knowledge means more progress, and progress is what we are all about. If the cell does not provide data, they may not think they are getting anywhere. If you bring up the Bible, they may be nervous, because the Bible is old data. They think that the present state of science, democracy and probably capitalism, is much smarter than everyone who ever lived before; humankind has progressed. They are also likely to think that the future will be even better; they might feel like they’ll be left behind if they attach to Jesus .

Christians certainly believe we are coming to a good end, so we like progress. And we believe individuals and societies can and should get better. But we know God has always known better; knowing God in every era is knowing better, and being known by God as God promotes our discovery of our eternity is best of all. So there might be opposition.

Blindly applying the latest “best practices” may flip vulnerable people “out of the frying pan and into the fire. “

People often tell me I will be on the wrong side of history if I don’t adapt to what’s coming around. I am trying to be adaptable. One night I actually suspected I might be TOO adaptable, even downright avant garde. Students from Ohio came to the meeting and thought they had arrived at a different spiritual planet! One of them said, “I think one of my friends went to a church like this once,” as if they were visiting Sea World and saw whales doing tricks. That was kind of scary! I like to be on the edge of what is next, but I don’t want to befuddle Ohioans!

Other times, it might be better to befuddle people. Because in my search to share a common language, I am tempted to fit in with what everyone thinks is fitting at the moment. I am so sympathetic to the discomfort of someone who is not aligned with me, I solve their problem by not being a problem. If Jesus is a problem, I leave him out too! If people are committed to things that are killing them, I might not risk being opposed and let them die!

Rather than fitting in and waiting to be discovered, I might want to be honest about the revelation I carry and help someone fit into it. The loving negotiation we have in a cell when a new person arrives should be a highpoint of our week, not some awkward moment we fear, just because will might face natural opposition. For Jesus sake, we face opposition carefully and don’t just adapt to what’s coming at us because we want to appear nice.

What everyone has come to think is normal is not always our new normal. I am thinking of all the things scientists and pseudo-scientists have invented in the last 100-500 years, especially the last 50 years– what the latest thinking popularizes as “best practices.” As my mom said, “Just because someone is popular does not make them good” (that might have been Jesus, not Mom, not sure).  When the bandwagon crashes, the most vulnerable get most hurt. We have a better vehicle and just because it was not invented yesterday doesn’t mean it isn’t the best vehicle.

We must not underestimate just how unwilling most of us are to suffer.

There is a lot of pressure to make being ourselves feel good [just saw this] and to never suffer being disliked, disrespected or disabled. Dis is becoming a forbidden syllable. (And don’t dis me because I said so!) More and more, people believe we are not supposed to experience dis-ease, dis-comfort, or dis-appointment. If you are the cell leader that perpetrates any dis there may be instant dis-tance. Don’t be afraid, just keep talking about it. It is natural opposition.

Some things about us are not going to change this side of the age to come. We can be comforted, happy and stable, but we might not be perfect or perfectly related. Being saved is better than being perfect. Being who one is and letting God accept us and change us is better than demanding that society (or the church) supply a perfect environment for our perfect life. But that doesn’t mean people won’t think their idealizations are exactly what the church should provide and promote. Plenty of people thought Jesus would miraculously wipe out Rome and solve all their problems; He didn’t do it the way they wanted and we still don’t.

Expressions of faith change over time to match an era and its needs, but that’s not improving the faith, it’s trying to be clear.

We Jesus-followers have always adapted to whatever society we are in, most of the time for good, sometimes with spectacularly wrong results.  For instance, how did Evangelicals in the United States adapt so completely to the language of capitalism and nationalism that they consider certain conservative economic principles and gun rights as tantamount to the Gospel? How did the Roman Catholic Church become a kingdom? I think they adapted to what was “now” and got stuck there. They answered the wrong questions, which were more about power than grace — in the US we tend to have rich people arguments, assuming the whole world is like us (or would like to be!); in the Congo, our brothers and sisters are debating something else.

Our basic question should be, “What provides for redemption?” Not, “How can I make my religion adaptable to what’s happening now?” I’m not ashamed of Jesus. God does not need updating, as if he were a style. But God does speak the language of love to the beloved, and so should we.

Being chosen is the beginning of freedom.

Most people seem to think that choice is the end of freedom. For instance: if Libyans get democracy, everything will be fine (just like it is here!). I don’t think many people consciously think this, but they act like they believe that endless choices, like consumer choices, make them human. Human rights is often a discussion of “choice.”

I agree that having rights is sure better than being dominated! But I hasten to add that the philosophy of choice is also a domination system, and being free from conforming to it is my right in Christ. Having many or few choices does not make me more human and certainly not more spiritually free.

This is a tricky argument to have while munching on a cookie during a cell meeting. But it will undoubtedly come up, because a lot of people think morality is about rights. Since Christians are all for morality, then we must be about rights. It is surprising to people when we go deeper than that and talk about how losing our right to be “free” of God has given us freedom to be our true selves back in relationship with God.

All this over chips?

How many giant issues can one person fit on a page? Thanks for getting this far. My life feels like a lot of giant issues squashed into a little brain — my days have been full of stimulating conversations that can’t get finished in a short amount of time.  It is also like a cell — full of fascinating people with more issues to consider than there is time in a meeting.

Any help you can give in how to state redemptive truths positively and not just join the flame-throwers on the net, in the Congress and on TV will be appreciated. Our cells are an antidote to what is dividing the world and making us anxiously alone. The better we get at teaching people the language of love, the better off we all are — especially those people who seem like opponents until they aren’t.

Redux #8 — Is God going to punish me?

At the beginning of the year I want to repost “top ten” posts. On Friday, I’m reminding people about some posts before 2014 that people have kept reading — there is a “top ten” of them! Here is #8

In October of 2012 I tried to convince people that they were not condemned just because they feel condemnable.

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You are not condemned yet.

In God we live and move and have our being. God might be holding on to us by the slenderest of threads, but he is holding on. God wants us to live, not die. I think the last thing God wants is for us to live in fear of him dropping us into hell.

Yet we still wonder if we are about ready to be dropped. “Is God going to punish me?” — that is not a dumb question if you are a Bible reader. The Bible seems to plainly say that he is going to do just that:  “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9). In other translations, “he will punish” is translated “he will take revenge.” The root idea has to do with working out justice. Justice is going to be done. At the end of days, those who have turned away from God will be sent the direction they are facing forever. So yes, you could definitely call that punishment. God is going to punish us if we refuse to relate to him and we work out death instead of life.

We are not being punished for our sins right now, however. That’s not going to happen until time is up — and it is not up, yet. There is a difference between the punishment described in 2 Thessalonians and our Father responding to the consequences of our choices right now. There is a final judgment that will bring things to right. But God is forestalling that day and that punishment. What we experience now is his loving discipline that brings us to life. Romans 8 says that there is NO condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because the Lord Jesus took all of the Father’s condemnation on Himself on the cross. He wrestled evil to exhaustion. The true state of every Jesus lover is uncondemned.

Yet we still wonder if we are condemned! “Is God mad at me? What is going on? Why is this situation working out so poorly? Why do I function so poorly? Did I cause God to make me sick or make me lose my loved one? Am I being punished?” For a Jesus-follower, those jumbled up feelings come with the process of being disciplined for life, not because we are locked up in condemnation like we used to be. Here is a key Bible passage about that:  Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline —then you are not legitimate children at all. Moreover, we have all had parents who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! (Hebrews 12).

When uncondemned people experience the struggle of becoming free of the vestiges of sin and death hanging on them, we should consider it the discipline of the Lord leading us out of darkness into light. We are like babies in the Spirit and we need our Parent to help us learn how to walk and run and build in the Spirit.

So if you are in Christ, God is not punishing you — and I say you only need a mustard seed of faith to be in Christ. You’ll want more faith, but it doesn’t take much to have enough —  and God is the judge of what is enough, not you or me. If you are turned toward Jesus and following, God is not punishing you in the sense that he has judged you unworthy of him and has given you over to die  —  and he never will.

But what do I do about feeling condemnable?

feeling condemnedA young woman wrote into one of the internet question sites. She said “I am so depressed right now because I feel all the mistakes in my past mistakes are so many that I won’t have a good future. I’m 29 years old and I had 2 abortions before I was 20. Two years ago I slept with my boyfriend even though I was already a Christian; we went our separate ways because of this. (He’s also a Christian.) I have been single ever since and I have been told that I am being punished for all my sins. Does this mean because of what happened in my past I will never find peace, joy or fulfillment? Does this mean God will never trust me with a relationship again? Will I have to pay for the rest of my life? Will He refuse to forgive me since I made the mistakes when I was already a Christian? I have been so tormented by all this and I am in constant pain–my heart aches. I really don’t know what to do, I have prayed and asked for forgiveness, don’t know what else to do. All I feel is guilt, guilt, guilt.”

What can we say to such a poor, dear soul? She is experiencing something most of us feel at some level. She has acted in ways that have consequences; she has sinned. She doesn’t experience peace, or joy, or fulfillment. It might seem simplistic to anyone suffering like she is, but I often give a simple response, “It seems like your cup is upside down.” You think and feel like you are still condemned. God’s grace is bouncing off your condemnation. Turn your cup over so it can fill with grace.

When she asks, “Will I have to pay for the rest of my life?” The answer is, “No, you will not have to pay for the rest of your life.” God just wants you to turn your cup right side up. You already turned his way; you’re feeling the sorrow of being sinful. Don’t stay camped out in a living death with your cup upside down! If you are camped out in living death, feeling guilty and liable to punishment (maybe even feeling like you are being actively punished!), you need to turn your cup up and fill up with freedom from condemnation.

Maybe that sounds a little too easy to be useful. It is not that easy to become permeable to grace again. Even though we are uncondemned, that condition has not necessarily made us smarter or altogether capable. And there are forces that are invested in us staying impermeable. Here are three ways to see those forces:

1. God is not interested in punishing us, but WE might be.

For instance, my parents were very poor as children and did not get enough to eat. When I was a child they taught me to eat every scrap of food I was given because there might not be more food coming. They did not mean this to be a big lesson, but it is what they thought. I took in what they believed and made it part of what I believe, even though we had enough food to eat. I still follow the rule even though I am surrounded by a sea of food. To this day, I almost never go out to eat without cleaning my plate completely of luxurious, expensive food. Should I feel guilty about not eating my food, as if I am a bad person, as if I will be condemned for that? Of course not! But what do I do, if I do feel that way, if I have that way installed in me?

I need to work with the discipline of the Lord, freeing me and making me holy. I would not want to resent the discipline of learning to live as a free brother of Jesus just because it is hard! I suppose I could see the whole experience of realizing some thing in me that is messing me up as a disaster that shows that I am unsaved and unredeemable — “I can’t stop fretting about food!” But what is really happening is this: I am being disciplined to be a free being. God does not want to punish me, but I might think being punished is normal, and might live under all sorts of irrational rules that kill me, not free me. I have thoughts and habits of the heart that are not fully aligned with how God sees me or how God wishes I could see the universe. I need to turn my cup up.

2.  God is not interested in punishing us, but the WORLD might be.

We could talk about the U.S. punishing Afghanistan as evidence. The NCAA is punishing Penn State. The irrational family courts are punishing husbands or wives. We are surrounded by a huge prison punishment industry in Pennsylvania. Cheaters on tests have been punished in our schools. Lance Armstrong lost his Tour de France titles. We love “justice.” I am in school, so I am afraid of how my professors might punish my errors, as they see them. You might work in an office and feel afraid to talk to the boss for fear of what she might do to you. Everything is illegal in Philly, so most of us could be accosted by the police at any moment. We fear “justice.”

I am an uncondemned person, but what if everything around me tells me that what I am doing is wrong and expects me to take that seriously all day, or else? It is a problem, if we don’t work with it as part of the Lord disciplining us for freedom and grace. Turn your cup up.

3. God is not interested in punishing us, but EVIL FORCES might be.

The devil is not an anti-god who is able to influence us all day. But there are forces that would like us to fail and die. When Jesus was baptized and made his first steps toward the public ministry that would lead him to death and resurrection, it says that “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”  Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘People do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Jesus could have made bread from stones, but humans can’t. One of the reasons he did not make bread from stones is because he was fully identified with us in every way — all the good and all the bad. In the event of the devil’s temptation, obedience to the process of discipline was more important than the gratification of not being hungry. Jesus did not take the situation into his own hands, like humans are tempted to do. He waited on God like humans need to wait. The discipline seems hard, but this first defeat of the evil one foreshadowed the ultimate thrashing Jesus is gave him in God’s time.

We were talking about feeling great as a church the other day. And then we started naming all the ways we felt people were being tempted and turned away by evil. Getting more free and being attacked are kind of the same process for God’s children. The devil might want the process of growing in faith to kill us, or at least feel like it is killing us. But since we are uncondemnable and are walking with Jesus, all that temptation just trains us for being our true selves. We need to keep the cup turned up.

You on the rightI don’t think anyone needs to tell you, “You are hanging by a slender thread,” so you will wake up and not be cast into the fire. I think you have enough guilt right now to motivate you. I think you have enough fear. I think you have enough loneliness to make you wonder if God is punishing you. Elements of your own being, the world, and evil forces are all conspiring to make feel condemned when you are not. Turn up your cup; you are not condemned! Though we are still a bit stupid and unable, God will help us as we face the temptation to believe the lies that tell us we are unforgiveable, or that we have a God bent on our destruction — you are not unforgiveable and you do not have that kind of Lord. You have a God determined that you will live forever. He has forgiven you and will forgive you and make you whole. If you don’t experience it all tomorrow, just wait; it is coming. Turn your cup up.

It's a new creation, vato.

I think it was probably in the room last night when we were together for worship. But I could not see it too well. There were not a lot of fist pumps with “Yes! I feel that sting. I know I have been poisoned. But Death, you have no power over me!” Lent kind of teases out that kind of reaction, but it can be a long tease for some of us. It might take even longer for people to start dancing around the room shouting, “Yes! I feel oppressed! I understand how the law has been keeping me down. But Jesus, you have freed me!” But it is all there in the Bible; Jesus-lovers trying to woo people into newness: The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:56).

I think it might be easier to feel guilty for sin and just keep trying to fulfill the latest or oldest law. Being controlled so often feels like we are in control.

his rules are being challenged
his rules are being challenged

One of the reasons I try to emulate the Apostle Paul is that he is so out of control when it comes to the usual domination systems and he is so moved by the Holy Spirit. Thus, I am getting a lot from my little video parable full of seekers, vato. Even when Paul is abused, shipwrecked or in prison, he doesn’t forget that Jesus just recreated him and that his eternal destiny is just around the corner from the latest mess. The diaper, the deadline, the demand, or the disaster do not derail his delight. He does not create a law so he never has to experience trouble; he lives by a law that turns trouble into life. His wonderful insight results in some great teaching that has been an antidote to the poison of sin and an alternative to the graceless oppression of law for centuries.

Continue reading It's a new creation, vato.

Is God Going to Punish Me?

You are not condemned yet.

In God we live and move and have our being. God might be holding on to us by the slenderest of threads, but he is holding on. God wants us to live, not die. I think the last thing God wants is for us to live in fear of him dropping us into hell.

Yet we still wonder if we are about ready to be dropped. “Is God going to punish me?” — that is not a dumb question if you are a Bible reader. The Bible seems to plainly say that he is:  “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9). In other translations, “he will punish” is translated “he will take revenge.” The root idea has to do with working out justice. Justice is going to be done. At the end of days, those who have turned away from God will be sent the direction they are facing forever. So yes, you could definitely call that punishment. God is going to punish us if we refuse to relate to him and we work out death instead of life.

We are not being punished for our sins right now, however. That’s not going to happen until time is up — and it is not up, yet. Consider that there is a difference between the punishment 2 Thessalonians is talking about, and the process of our father responding to the consequences of our choices. There is a final judgment that will bring things to right. But God is forestalling that day, and that punishment. What we experience now is his loving discipline that brings us to life. Romans 8 says that there is NO condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because the Lord Jesus took all of the Father’s condemnation on Himself on the cross. He wrestled evil to exhaustion. The true state of every Jesus lover is uncondemned.

Yet we still wonder if we are condemned. “Is God mad at me? What is going on? Why is this situation working out so poorly? Why do I work so poorly? Am I being punished? Did I cause God to make me sick or make me lose my loved one?” Those jumbled up feelings come with the process of being disciplined for life, not because we are locked up in condemnation, like we used to be. Here is a key Bible passage about that:  

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline —then you are not legitimate children at all. Moreover, we have all had parents who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! (Hebrews 12).

When uncondemned people experience the struggle of becoming free of the vestiges of sin and death hanging on them, they should consider it the discipline of the Lord, leading us out of darkness into light. We are like babies in the Spirit and we need our Parent to help us learn how to walk and run and build in the Spirit.

So if you are in Christ, God is not punishing you — and I say you only need a mustard seed of faith to be in Christ. You’ll want more faith, but it doesn’t take much to have enough —  and God is the judge of what is enough, not you or me. If you are turned toward Jesus and following, God is not punishing you in the sense that he has judged you unworthy of him and has given you over to die  —  and he never will.

But what do I do about feeling condemnable?

A young woman wrote into one of the internet question sites. She said “I am so depressed right now because I feel all the mistakes in my past mistakes are so many that I won’t have a good future. I’m 29 years old and I had 2 abortions before I was 20. Two years ago I slept with my boyfriend even though I was already a Christian; we went our separate ways because of this. (He’s also a Christian.) I have been single ever since and I have been told that I am being punished for all my sins. Does this mean because of what happened in my past I will never find peace, joy or fulfillment? Does this mean God will never trust me with a relationship again? Will I have to pay for the rest of my life? Will He refuse to forgive me since I made the mistakes when I was already a Christian? I have been so tormented by all this and I am in constant pain–my heart aches. I really don’t know what to do, I have prayed and asked for forgiveness, don’t know what else to do. All I feel is guilt, guilt, guilt.

What can we say to such a poor, dear soul? She is experiencing something most of us feel at some level. She has acted in ways that have consequences; she has sinned. She doesn’t experience peace, or joy, or fulfillment. A very simple way to respond might be, “It seems like your cup is upside down.” You think and feel like you are still condemned. God’s grace is bouncing off your condemnation.

When she asks, “Will I have to pay for the rest of my life?” The answer is, “No, you will not have to pay for the rest of your life.” God just wants you to turn your cup right side up. You already turned her way; you’re feeling the sorrow of being sinful. Don’t stay camped out in a living death with your cup upside down! If you are camped out in living death, feeling guilty and liable to punishment (maybe even feeling like you are being actively punished!), you need to turn your cup up and receive freedom from condemnation.

Maybe that sounds a little too easy to be useful. That’s probably true. Even though we are uncondemned, that condition has not necessarily made us smarter or altogether capable:

1. God is not interested in punishing us, but WE might be.

For instance, my parents were very poor as children and did not get enough to eat. When I was a child they taught me to eat every scrap of food I was given because there might not be more food coming. They did not mean this to be a big lesson, but it is what they thought. I took in what they believed and made it part of what I believe, even though we had enough food to eat. I still follow the rule even though I am surrounded by a sea of food. To this day, I almost never go out to eat without cleaning my plate completely of luxurious, expensive food. Should I feel guilty about not eating my food, as if I am a bad person, as if I will be condemned for that? Of course not! But what do I do, if I do feel that way, if I have that way installed in me?

I need to work with the discipline of the Lord, freeing me and making me holy. I would not want to resent the discipline of learning to live as a free brother of Jesus just because it is hard! I suppose I could see the whole experience of realizing something in me that is messing me up as a disaster that shows that I am unsaved and unredeemable — “I can’t stop fretting about food!” But what is really happening is this: I am being disciplined to be a free being. God does not want to punish me, but I might think being punished is normal, and might live under all sorts of irrational rules that kill me, not free me. I have thoughts and habits of the heart that are not fully aligned with how God sees me or how God wishes I could see the universe. I need to turn my cup up.

2.  God is not interested in punishing us, but the WORLD might be.

We could talk about the U.S. punishing Afghanistan as evidence. The NCAA is punishing Penn State. The irrational family courts are punishing husbands or wives. We are surrounded by a huge prison punishment industry in Pennsylvania. Cheaters on tests have been punished in our schools. Lance Armstrong lost his tour de France titles. We love “justice.” I am in school, so I am afraid of how my professors might punish my errors, as they see them. You might work in an office and feel afraid to talk to the boss for fear of what she might do to you. Everything is illegal in Philly, so most of us could be accosted by the police at any moment. We fear “justice.”

I am an uncondemned person, but what if everything around me tells me that what I am doing is wrong and expects me to take that seriously all day, or else? It is a problem, if we don’t work with it as part of the Lord disciplining us for freedom and grace. Turn the cup up.

3. God is not interested in punishing us, but EVIL FORCES might be.

The devil is not an anti-god who is able to influence us all day. But there are forces that would like us to fail and die. When Jesus was baptized and made his first steps toward the public ministry that would lead him to death and resurrection, it says that “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”  Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘People do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Jesus could have made bread from stones, but humans can’t. One of the reasons he did not make bread from stones is because he was fully identified with us in every way — all the good and all the bad. In the event of the devil’s temptation, obedience to the process of discipline was more important than the gratification of not being hungry. Jesus did not take the situation into his own hands, like humans are tempted to do. He waited on God like humans need to wait. The discipline seems hard, but this first defeat of the evil one foreshadowed the ultimate thrashing Jesus is gave him in God’s time.

We were talking about feeling great as a church the other day. And then we started naming all the ways we felt people were being tempted and turned away by evil. Getting more free and being attacked are kind of the same process for God’s children. The devil might want the process of growing in faith to kill us, or at least feel like it is killing us. But since we are uncondemnable and are walking with Jesus, all that temptation just trains us for being our true selves. We need to keep the cup turned up.

I don’t think anyone needs to tell you, “You are hanging by a slender thread,” so you will wake up and not be cast into the fire. I think you have enough guilt right now to motivate you. I think you have enough fear. I think you have enough loneliness to make you wonder if God is punishing you. Elements of your own being, the world, and evil forces are all conspiring to make you feel condemned when you are not. Turn up your cup; you are not condemned! Though we are still a bit stupid and unable, God will help us as we face the temptation to believe the lies that tell us we are unforgiveable, or that we have a God bent on our destruction — you are not unforgiveable and you do not have that kind of Lord. You have a God determined that you will live forever. He has forgiven you and will forgive you and make you whole. If you don’t experience it all tomorrow, just wait; it is coming. Turn your cup up.

Five assumptions that might tickle the bone of contention

Every Cell Leader, if they are engaged with their fellow cell members, is going to run up against opposition. Not necessarily antagonism, but the natural opposition people feel when Jesus calls them to follow, even more when He leads them to form  a community centered around Him. It’s supernatural, not the natural to which they are accustomed. They aren’t being “bad,” they are entering the cell deeply influenced by large societal forces and their whole history.  They bring assumptions that immediately pressure the cell for conformity. They are not likely to automatically change their minds and habits to conform to our vision of what following Jesus is all about!  It is understandable opposition. (Besides, the society might be more “conformed” to Jesus than the church, sometimes!). Stimulating dialogue should ensue.

Good cells do not require good chips. But it helps.

One of the blessings of my work is the luxury of having stimulating dialogue all the time (often with chips involved!). Sometimes I am in the midst of a fascinating “issue,” but often I am just sorting out the intricate issues of being a Jesus-follower in an ever-changing, ever-falling world. In the past few weeks, I have had some deep conversations that have me thinking about the main issues we face when we try to form cells.

As a result, I have some “proverbs” forming in my mind that speak to the regular issues I discuss with people as they try to make sense of life in Christ as a cell. Here are five assumptions I think cell leaders should have when they are doing their work of nururing a circle of people coming to know Jesus and coming to know how to live as the body of Christ. Here goes:

Knowing things and knowing ourselves is more about being known than processing data.

Wisdom is revealed and received more than extracted from precedent or “the research.” When I say that, I mean that wisdom resides with God and is primarily revealed in Jesus. Nevertheless, a lot of people expect to discover God by endless data processing, since that’s what we do. Processing means progressing to them.

As a result, many people will assume that more knowledge means more progress, and progress is what we are all about. If the cell does not provide data, they may not think they are getting anywhere. If you bring up the Bible, they may be nervous, because the Bible is old data. They think that the present state of science, democracy and probably capitalism, is much smarter than everyone who ever lived before; humankind has progressed. They are also likely to think that the future will be even better; they might feel like they’ll be left behind if they attach to Jesus .

Christians certainly believe we are coming to a good end, so we like progress. And we believe individuals and societies can and should get better. But we know God has always known better; knowing God in every era is knowing better, and being known by God as God promotes our discovery of our eternity is best of all.

Blindly applying the latest “best practices” may flip vulnerable people “out of the frying pan and into the fire. “

People often tell me I will be on the wrong side of history if I don’t adapt to what’s coming around. I am trying to be adaptable. Last night I actually suspected I might be TOO adaptable. Students from Ohio came to the meeting and thought they had arrived at a different spiritual planet! One of them said, “I think one of my friends went to a church like this, once,” as if they visited Sea World and saw whales doing tricks. I like to be on the edge of what is next, not “out of this world.” We need to reach into what is coming and reach back into what was.

However, we don’t need to blindly adopt whatever the scientists and pseudo-scientists invented in the last 100-500 years, certainly not the last 50 years, certainly not what the latest movement popularizes as best practices — as if that should be a new normal.  As my mom said, “Just because someone is popular does not make them good” — that might have been Jesus, not Mom, not sure.  When the bandwagon crashes, the most vulnerable get most hurt.

We must not underestimate just how unwilling most of us are to suffer.

There is a lot of pressure to make being ourselves feel good and to never suffer being disliked, disrespected or disabled. Dis is becoming a forbidden syllable. (And don’t dis me because I said so!) We are not supposed to experience dis-ease, dis-comfort, or dis-appointment. If you are the cell leader that perpetrates any dis there may be instant dis-tance. Don’t be afraid, just keep talking about it.

Some things about us are not going to change this side of the age to come. We can be comforted, happy and stable, but we might not be perfect or perfectly related. Being saved is better than being perfect. Being who one is and letting God accept us and change us is better than demanding that society (or the church) supply a perfect environment for our perfect life.

Expressions of faith change over time to match an era and its needs, but that’s not improving the faith, that’s just being clear.

We Jesus-followers have always adapted to whatever society we are in, most of the time for good, sometimes with spectacularly wrong results.  In the US we tend to have rich people arguments, assuming the whole world is like us (or would like to be!).  In the Congo, our brothers and sisters are debating something else.

My basic thought about everything is, “What provides for redemption?” Not, “How can I make my religion adaptable to what’s happening now?” I’m not ashamed of Jesus. God does not need updating, as if he were a style. But, at the same time, love speaks the language of the loved one.

Being chosen is the beginning of freedom.

Most people seem to think that choice is the end of freedom. For instance: if Libyans get democracy, everything will be fine (just like it is here!). I don’t think many people consciously think this, but they act like they believe that endless choices, like consumer choices, make them human. Human rights is often a discussion of “choice.”

I agree that having rights is sure better than being dominated! But I hasten to add that the philosophy of choice is also a domination system, and being free from conforming to it is my right in Christ. Having many or few choices does not make me more human and certainly not more spiritually free.

This is a tricky argument to have while munching on a cookie during a cell meeting. But it will undoubtedly come up, because a lot of people think morality is about rights. Since Christians are all for morality, then we must be about rights. It is surprising to people when we go deeper than that and talk about how losing our right to be “free” of God has given us freedom to be our true selves back in relationship with God.

All this over chips?

How many giant issues can one pastor fit on a page? Thanks for getting this far. My life feels like a lot of giant issues squashed into a little brain — my days have been full of stimulating conversations that can’t get finished in a short amount of time.  It is also like a cell — full of fascinating people with more issues to consider than there is time in a meeting.

Any help you can give in how to state redemptive truths positively and not just join the flame-throwers on the net, in the Congress and on TV will be appreciated.